Teaching Students About Defining a Relative Clause

What are some examples of relative clauses?

Relative clauses add information to sentences using a relative pronoun, such as who, that, or which. Here are some examples of relative clauses where we have highlighted the relative clause.

  • She lives in York, which is a cathedral city.
  • That’s the girl who lives near the school.
  • Sam liked his new chair, which was very comfortable.

Relative clauses can be categorized into two groups:

  • Defining relative clauses
  • Non-defining relative clauses

What is a Defining Relative Clause?

Defining relative clauses gives essential information to determine the subject we’re discussing. For this reason, they’re sometimes called necessary relative clauses because their data is critical to understanding the sentence’s meaning.

Unlike a non-defining relative clause, we need to know the information included in the defining relative clause to make sense of the rest of the sentence.

Take a look at this relative clause example:

  • People who like books often go to the library.

In this sentence, ‘that like books’ is the relative clause. It’s classed as a defining relative clause because this information is essential for clarifying the sentence’s meaning. For example, if we remove this relative clause, the sentence reads like this:

  • People often go to the library.

The sentence still makes sense grammatically, but the meaning of the sentence itself changes. We need the clause ‘who likes books’ because it defines the subject, the ‘people’ we’re talking about. Without the defining relative clause, the sentence is vague and unclear – who are these ‘people’ we’re talking about?

Further defining relative clauses examples:

  • I like to sit in the garden when it’s sunny.
  • I have no idea why that happened.
  • Cats are animals that have soft fur and sharp claws.

What Relative Pronouns are used in a Defining Relative Clause?

Relative pronouns appear at the start of all relative clauses, both defining and non-defining.

In a defining relative clause, we use one of the following relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, where, when, why, and that.

Using ‘that’ instead of ‘who,’ ‘whom,’ or ‘which.’

In spoken English, we often replace the relative pronouns ‘who,’ ‘whom,’ or ‘which’ with ‘that.’ ‘Whom’ is also considered to be very formal, so it’s rarely if ever, used when speaking. You can use ‘who’ or ‘that’ instead.

Here are some examples where ‘who,’ ‘whom,’ and ‘which’ have been replaced with that:

  • The book that I read was a mystery thriller. (instead of ‘which’)
  • The girl that I walk to school with drops by at 8 am. (instead of ‘who’)
  • The teacher that helps me with my homework is charming. (instead of ‘whom’)

Omitting the Relative Pronoun

Sometimes, we can remove the relative pronoun from the defining relative clause. This helps to make the sentence sound less clunky and more natural.

We can only omit the relative pronoun when it’s the object of the clause, not the subject.

Here’s an example where we can omit it:

  • The books that they read were very informative.
  • The books they read were very informative.

And one where we can’t:

  • The girl that lives next door plays the guitar.

In the first example, the books are the object, and ‘they’ is the subject. We can remove the relative pronoun ‘that,’ and it makes sense.

In the second, the girl is the subject, so we can’t remove the relative pronoun ‘that.’ If we did, it wouldn’t make grammatical sense. ‘The girl who lives next door plays the guitar’ is just a jumble of words!

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